Published  31/08/2010

A Letter from Sydney: July 2010

A Letter from Sydney: July 2010

I. THE 17th SYDNEY BIENNALE: THE BEAUTY OF DISTANCE: Songs of Survival in a Precarious Age, 12 May–1 August 2010.

II. Janet Laurence, “Waiting – A Medicinal Garden for Ailing Plants”, Botanical Gardens, Sydney.

III. Michael Esson, WANDERLUST: A DRAWING DIALOGUE, The Tin Sheds Gallery, Faculty of Architecture, Design and Planning, University of Sydney, 8–31 July 2010.


Australians have long been aware of what Geoffrey Blainey called, The Tyranny of Distance.1 Overseas travel has always been vital to Australian artists, and a central theme in the development of their work. Where travel was done for lengthy periods of time, artists such as Arthur Boyd, Sidney Nolan and their generation who travelled to Europe and stayed for some years, travel today can be quick and regular, enabling artists to exhibit abroad, to visit the circuit of international fairs and biennales, to be active players in international art.

Julie Ewington in her essay for Face Up, (2004) in Berlin observed: “Changes in communications technology have blessed the settler societies of the southern hemisphere in the last thirty years: jet travel, developments in telecommunications and digital technologies, all the globalising trends that have brought countries, economies and cultures into closer contact, have profited Australian art and artists. This has been neither a purposeless, nor inadvertent drift. Australians have seized on those new possibilities to defeat distance with knowledge, as they previously seized on books, films and television; in the process they have become world leaders in experimental photography and the digital arts”2

It is appropriate that this year’s Biennale director is David Elliott, cultural historian and formerly Director of the Museum of Modern Art, Oxford, UK (1976–96); Director of Moderna Museet, Stockholm, Sweden (1996–2001); Founding Director of the Mori Gallery, Tokyo and Istanbul Modern Art Museum, Turkey (2007). In “Culture without borders”,3 Elliott challenges Western chauvinism throughout history especially since the Enlightenment. His post-colonial view is most appropriate in the present Australian context where the critical dialogue in response to Aboriginal art has seriously questioned Western cultural hegemony in global terms. Recent Aboriginal art has reinvigorated Australian visual culture in a dramatic manner, which has no precedent or parallel anywhere else in the world. Aboriginal art has provided a focal point for the profound changes that have taken place in popular attitudes and in government policy in Australia regarding its indigenous population. Such is the burgeoning nature of the industry that exhibitions and publications now proliferate. Aboriginal art has infused contemporary Australian art with a unique energy and drama. Director of the National Gallery of Victoria, Gerard Vaughan, observed “The visual art of Indigenous Australia has a stronger presence, diversity and dynamism than ever before in its history. Many Australians have been looking at, thinking about, and – consciously or unconsciously – absorbing this new art for at least twenty years. It is impossible to deny that Aboriginal artists have transformed the way we see our land and the history of Australian art. In fact, Aboriginal art, in all its diverse forms, has become the mainstream of contemporary art practice”.4

The 17th Biennale of Sydney takes as its cue the established notion of distance, and uses it to present a Post Colonial message in relation to contemporary art practice and criticism. Now in its 37th year, the Sydney Biennale is the third longest running biennale in the world. The Beauty of Distance acknowledges and celebrates the shift in public opinion in Australia and globally that seeks a revisionist approach to cultural history. In his Rudolph Arnheim professorial lecture at Humboldt University, Berlin David Elliott recently stated:

The myth of cultural supremacy and separation is one of the great hoaxes of history, a discipline that until very recently was little more than propaganda, written by victors. The unsettling truth is that people, images and things have always moved vast distances across the world.
The West traditionally consigned the East and South to backwardness, antiquity or exoticism in the clear conviction that the whole idea and reality of modernity was a Western invention.
The appreciation of art of all kinds, from wherever it may originate, is dependent on the recognition of aesthetic quality. On what other basis could we wish to consider and enjoy art as art?
We now accept that the recognition of quality comes down neither from God nor the academy and is the result of a constant discussion in which its borders need to be regularly tried and tested.5

Since its inception the Sydney Biennale has long questioned received wisdom in cultural terms, as Nick Waterlow did so poignantly, in the Biennales that he was Director for in 1979, 1986 and 1988. The 17th Biennale of Sydney is dedicated to the life and continuing influence of Nick Waterlow OAM (1941–2009).  He was Chair of the International Selection Committee in 2000. For 11 years (1994–2005), Waterlow also served on the Board of the Biennale of Sydney. From this year the keynote address of the Biennale of Sydney’s Opening Week Forum has been named in Nick Waterlow’s memory. He has bestowed a stamp and curatorial legacy on the institution of the Sydney Biennale that is unrivalled.

The 1979 Biennale was visionary in embracing art from Asia and the Pacific Rim. Like a number of key British critics before him, such as Sir Kenneth Clark, Bryan Robertson and Peter Fuller, Nick Waterlow found Australian art particularly exciting. He presented Australian art in an international setting: global “regionalism” replaced “provincialism”. Waterlow moved the focus to the European avant-garde and Indigenous art. Dialogue through the visual arts played a key role in addressing issues of national and international significance at this crucial moment in Australia’s history.

Programming the 1979 Biennale, Waterlow entitled it European Dialogue, thereby challenging New York’s hegemony as the international art capital. The 1979 Biennale also saw the first exhibition of Aboriginal art within an international context.

Waterlow’s 1988 Biennale coincided with the Bicentennial of white settlement in Australia. From the Southern Cross: A View of World Art c1940–1988 was a revisionist narrative of 20th century art, enabling important links between European, American and Australian artists to be reassessed. The centerpiece was The Aboriginal Memorial, 200 hollow log grave posts from Ramingining in the Northern Territory, which was bought by the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra. The contribution of the Sydney Biennale programme over 37 years cannot be underestimated. The Beauty of Distance is a natural progression from the early biennales, and recent dialogue within Australian cultural institutions. The Sydney Biennale allows the showcasing of an exceptionally wide range of exciting work from all over the world. It also provides a unique meeting point for Australian artists (65 this year) to extend their dialogue to many other cultures and to work with their international peers.

THE BEAUTY OF DISTANCE: Songs of Survival in a Precarious Age, presents more than 440 works by 166 artists and collaborators from 36 countries, making it the largest exhibition ever staged by the Biennale of Sydney. Seventy artists will exhibit works specifically commissioned for the Biennale of Sydney, with 22 of these being created by Australian artists. David Elliott commented: “The 17th Biennale of Sydney aims to present diverse cultures on the equal playing field of contemporary art, where no culture can assume superiority over any other. This exhibition has been designed with Sydney’s position as an iconic modern city in mind. Whilst it would stand up equally well in any international city, I believe many cities would not have the courage to show an exhibition of this scale. THE BEAUTY OF DISTANCE contains contemporary art of many origins, looking towards the future, but inevitably formed by different experiences of the past. It asks the question: How much have things really changed in our world of transformation? How does this art reflect the actual world?”6

Elliott pointed out: “There is no more suitable stage than Sydney for this exhibition. It will take place against the iconic backdrop of the Harbour and Sydney Opera House at the site where British explorers first encountered the local inhabitants. At that time, colonial powers believed western civilisation was invincible and that they had the right to collect and possess universal knowledge. We now recognise such an ambition is both infantile and dangerous.”7

Where Australians have traditionally regarded distance as a disadvantage, the art selected for this exhibition, Elliott stressed, will celebrate the many “different beauties of distance by showing contemporary perspectives from all around the world. It will be an exceptional experience – challenging, but above all enjoyable”. “The idea of distance” he continued, “also expresses, the condition of art itself. Art is of life, runs parallel to life and is sometimes about life. But for art to be art (a medium of numinous, sometimes symbolic power), it must maintain a distance from life. Without distance, art has no authority and is no longer special.”8

The 17th Biennale of Sydney has taken place over a three-month period in venues and sites around Sydney Harbour, including Cockatoo Island, Pier 2/3, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney Opera House, Royal Botanic Gardens and Artspace. Thus David Elliott’s clear ethos has made for an inclusive and comprehensible contribution to Australia’s vital culture.

II. Janet Laurence: Waiting – A Medicinal Garden for Ailing Plants.

Janet Laurence’s exhibition for the Sydney Biennale, Waiting- A Medicinal Garden for Ailing Plants, held in the Botanical Gardens explored the potential for art to address the natural environment, to generate a heightened public awareness and in turn bring about the urgently required transformation of damaged or marginalised habitats. The installation was created as a transparent structure to echo both the botanical glasshouse and the museological, scientific vitrine. Laurence’s medical and scientific vessels filled with plants are metaphors for larger threatened environments. They contain various fluids and solids, creating a space for them to heal, and for the process to be observed. In doing so the viewer addresses the psychological state of plants, and the interdependence we share with an increasingly fragile eco-system.

Laurence’s work as early as the 1980s, explored aspects of female experience – primal/biological instincts and traditional female roles, which were augmented by the feminist agenda. The nurturing role of women is carried through to her recent work at the Sydney Biennale, which addresses the human need to heal, to preserve the environment. Like the French feminist philosopher, Luce Irigaray, Janet Laurence was then interested in defining and expressing the female in visual language. Female imagery becomes, broadly speaking, primal imagery displaying a desire for freedom in cultural and emotional terms. The image then is less important than its materiality; marks develop into forms; forms are not preconceived. Alchemy is central to her conceptual approach and to the processes employed in her art practice: “As a philosophy, I was drawn to its holistic nature, its connecting of the body, psyche, and the elements. This was particularly important as a woman artist searching for another language, from the dominance of the western separation of man from nature. As an artist wanting to reconnect with nature, it offered avenues, in both action and symbols”.9

Joseph Beuys had been one of Laurence’s greatest mentors. His journey from the use of his own body in early work, to work with the ‘social body’ has direct parallels with her work, which has moved from female experience to environmental issues. Beuys’s Vitrines works are key works for Laurence in the manner in which matter is transformed into meaning, and where nature can be transformed into cultural manifestations10. Like the use of glass vessels in Medicinal Garden, Beuys’s use of glass display cases established a dialogue with culture as perceived by museums and ideas. Beuys assembled vitrines as installation devices in 1983 to address the principle themes of his life and work. He used unusual materials for his sculptures, investing them with personal or spiritual significance. Laurence uses glass and plants in the same way that Beuys used fat, a material that he considered ‘very basic to life’.

My main language in glass, has been one of veiling, in it’s varying degrees between transparency, translucency and opacity. I don’t use glass to create forms but to reveal, reflect, and merge and assist in drawing us into a space of experience.
It is the history of glass in its creation of visibility that interests me. This history that has mainly gone into the scientific and architectural use of glass, thus what glass does to our idea of space.11

Beuys’s dedication to environmental issues in his collaborative planting of 7,000 oak trees, which was instigated at Documenta 7, in 1982, came to be synonymous with the Green Movement. Against the extensive urbanization of the city, the project symbolised artistic and ecological intervention with the goal of enduring change in the city.

In the work of Janet Laurence, environmental sustainability and the loss of species are addressed with a poetic resonance that comes from a long preoccupation with making art that represents both beauty and tragedy, where a critique of human impact on the environment is presented with a belief and indeed commitment to healing. Her work is also included in the show which opens this month, at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney In the Balance: Art for a Changing World, which will feature works by Australian and international contemporary artists that respond to ecological concerns (19 August–31 October 2010).

I first saw the work of Janet Laurence in 1985 at the University of Melbourne experiencing a sense of envelopment which came from the colours, earth materials and pigments used on paper, presented as an installation which created a space, in which one could travel in intellectual and emotional terms. The creation of habitats, which serve as metaphors for the wider world has characterised her work since, the most recent Sydney Biennale exhibition addressing the destruction of habitats and the extinction of whole species as a consequence. She is concerned with interconnection and inter-dependency in the natural world and the ramifications for human life and culture in the destruction of any one part of the eco-system. An exploration of alchemy underpins the present work. “My early work was based on the philosophy of alchemy and for me, it was the romantic and mystical view of the alchemists’ glass instruments and their association with bringing substances into being and transformation- this became my first exploration through art. It took me into working with all variety of materials. Glass enables the representation of nature to be captured, stored and transmitted as well as to display an amplified visibility through lenses and prisms. This use of it as a tool of visibility takes us metaphorically further into the association with light and out of darkness and thus blindness”.12

Laurence admires the pivotal role of drawing in Joseph Beuys’s art. Drawing was the first visible form of his works, the first visible manifestation of a thought. He defined drawing very widely (and somewhat ahead of his time) to include any number of materials, so to express conceptual ideas. Just as her pastel works from the 1980s explored female experience, Laurence’s current work is underpinned by drawing, which is central to the exploration of space and form, a mapping device that links her as an individual to nature. Using recent terminology her sculptural works can be defined as spatial drawing where plant works in scientific vessels are both linear and precisely formed. The creation of lines or striations within the works made from plant forms and glass, enables her to echo the mark- making in her sketchbooks (spatial exploration) with the alchemical implications of material transformation. Drawing then serves as the thread combining idea and form.

III. Michael Esson: Wanderlust: A Drawing Dialogue.

A leading exponent of drawing in Australia through his own concentrated art practice, Michael Esson established the International Research Institute at the College of Fine Arts, University of New South Wales, The Central Academy of Fine Arts, Beijing, China and the Glasgow School of Art, Scotland. Since its inauguration in 2000, IDRI has advanced drawing research through exhibitions, conferences and publications. It follows that he should explore the notion of travel through drawing, which he says connects his thoughts to his experience. “The journey has no predetermined destination; it is not a journey of miles, but of understanding and imagination”.13 Travelling frequently to China, Britain, and Pakistan, Esson who trained in Scotland, finds constant stimulus, “new experiences and fresh sensations that tease the sensibilities or jolt the imagination into creating images that reflect the excitement of wondrous things. The drawing journey is as much about departure as of arrival, of change and discovery.  It is a psychological travelogue that provokes and demands the mapping of visual memories. Unlike photography that merely captures, drawing has the ability to possess the journey, to filter and concentrate the experience”.14

Esson has produced some of his best work recently in China, where he seeks to embrace cultural complexity there, as a consequence of rapid social and economic development. His drawings are worked and re-worked using a wide range of media – charcoal, graphite, crayons, and pastel. In turn, the issues of political control and cultural liberation and the role of the artist in the new China are addressed. Teacher of Impermanence (2007) is a reminder of the transience of life. This seems particularly true in China, where the pace of change leaves a society polarised between the old and the new, the rich and the poor. Other drawings offer observations on existing mores and the constant evolution of a system that tries to retain control at all costs. There are references to the Cultural Revolution to be found in The Emperor’s New Flying Jacket. In technical terms, a rich patina is created through layers of marks and presents a diversity of dots and lines, smudges and solid blocks of colour. The work retains a western academic rigour that is grounded in anatomy, which he continues to teach to both art students and to surgeons. The juxtaposition with oriental forms and curious objects creates a potent cultural comment on globalism and cultural diaspora.

Wanderlust is an extension of the work exhibited at V.M. Art Gallery, in Karachi, in February 2010: Where All the Butterflies Go: A Survey of Drawings, Objects, Prints, curated by Abdullah Syed, and Roohi Ahmed. Where All the Butterflies Go, (2010) an etching, and Internal Affair, (2010) a large drawing, are the two most recent works exhibited in Karachi and Sydney. Both evolved from work in China, a drawing series: Ai Wu Ji Wu (Imagine My Heart is Yours) (2009) and a fashion project in Shanghai, Outside In (2009). “Both works refer to images regularly employed in my narratives, but which often change their meaning or at least metamorphose into more complex metaphors. The butterflies have a number of associations. For the first time the negative drawing of the chair appears. The chair represents a figure but it is about the absence of the body rather than the presence. Although each element has a ‘meaning’ and a role in the narrative, sometimes the reasons are quite literal and at times personal and obscure”.15 Abdullah Syed points out the manner in which Esson’s work has absorbed Islamic culture and Sufic teachings, “The chair, a negative corporeal space sits alone, waiting for the body’s return. This wait is further strengthened with the half sliced heart, which has an uncanny similarity with the bowl of a Faqir, [a poor man], a Sufi, who has left it behind for others to fill with love, prayers and compassion. The ‘healing’ legs dance with butterflies around the incarcerated dead sparrow, the core of the apples and hanging chicken feet allude to a ritual of offering for the end of the waiting period and the beginning of a new affair”.16

Esson creates large-scale drawings of consummate skill, obscure and unlikely imagery, which energises the picture plane. There are tender objects alongside macabre elements and curiosities, with significant space in between so that the viewer’s eye too, can move quickly around the picture plane. These works put one in mind of George Steiner’s view that in classical literature, characters are created with space around them, endowing them with privacy.17 The writer or artist who creates such a space may be doing it for aesthetic purposes in the first instance, but there is an implied respect for the subject, which is of significance in the area of cultural conflict and change. “Somehow drawing is fundamentally a hopeful experience, essentially an act of optimism. Where there is white, there is hope. The expectation and risk of the stark paper offers an opportunity to explore a creative ambition; a conceptual challenge, examined and tested, but which ultimately can always be erased to the ground – a dialogue unrecorded.”18


1. Geoffrey Blainey, The Tyranny of Distance, How Distance Shaped Australia’s History, MacMillan, Melbourne, (1966) 2001.

2. Julie Ewington, “In and of the World: Australian Visual Artists”, Face Up: Contemporary Art from Australia, Museum for the Present, Berlin, 2004, p.22.

3. David Elliott “Culture without borders”, The Australian, March 2009. From the Rudolph Arnheim Professorial lecture, Humbolt University, Berlin.

4. Gerard Vaughan, “Foreword”, in Judith Ryan (ed.) Colour Power: Aboriginal Art post 1984 in the collection of the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 2004, p.7.

5. Elliott, op.cit.

6. David Elliott, Media release, 17th Biennale of Sydney, 12 May 2010.

7. Elliott, Media Release, 3 June, 2009.

8. Ibid.

9. Janet Laurence, email interview with Janet McKenzie, 10 August 2010.

10. Janet Laurence, email interview with Janet McKenzie, 5 August 2010.

11. “Artist’s Statement”,

12. Ibid.

13. Michael Esson, “Wanderlust: A Drawing Dialogue”, Artist’s Statement, July 2010.

14. Ibid.

15. Michael Esson in conversation with Roohi Ahmed and Abdullah Syed, Where All the Butterflies Go, Karachi, 2010, p.10

16. Abdullah Syed, ibid, p.19.

17. George Steiner, On Difficulty and Other Essays, Oxford University Press, 1978.

18. Esson in, Michael Esson: A Drawing Dialogue, Albury Regional Art Gallery, Albury, 30 November 2007 – 6 January 2008.

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